Tuesday, 29 December 2009

A Fast, Cheap Way to Cool the Planet

Forget about carbon. If we want to buffer global warming, cutting methane is the key.
This month's Copenhagen talks focused on the leading climate change culprit: carbon dioxide. But reversing global temperature increases by reducing carbon emissions will take many decades, if not centuries. Even if the largest cuts in CO2 contemplated in Copenhagen are implemented, it simply will not reverse the melting of ice already occurring in the most sensitive areas, including the rapid disappearance of glaciers in Tibet, the Arctic and Latin America.
So what can we do to effectively buffer global warming? The most obvious strategy is to make an all-out effort to reduce emissions of methane.
Sometimes called the "other greenhouse gas," methane is responsible for 75% as much warming as carbon dioxide measured over any given 20 years. Unlike carbon dioxide, which remains in the atmosphere for hundreds of years, methane lasts only a decade but packs a powerful punch while it's there.
Methane's short life makes it especially interesting in the short run, given the pace of climate change. If we need to suppress temperature quickly in order to preserve glaciers, reducing methane can make an immediate impact. Compared to the massive requirements necessary to reduce CO2, cutting methane requires only modest investment. Where we stop methane emissions, cooling follows within a decade, not centuries. That could make the difference for many fragile systems on the brink.
Yet global discussions about climate and policies to date have not focused on methane. Methane is formally in the "basket" of six gases targeted by the 1997 Kyoto Protocol. But its value is counted as if it has the same lifetime as carbon dioxide.
This ignores its much larger, near-term potential. As a result, methane represents only about 15% of the projects under the Kyoto Protocol's emissions offset program. And it is not a major focus of climate protection programs in any nation.
This is huge missed opportunity, and not just for the climate. Methane also forms ozone, the smog that severely damages food crops and kills tens of thousands each year by worsening asthma, emphysema and other respiratory diseases
Captured methane gas can be used as a clean energy source, contributing to energy security and diversification as well as reducing damaging black carbon (soot) and CO2 emissions. Solving the methane problem will lead to a higher quality of life by cleaning up city and agricultural wastes and odors, and curbing air pollution from dirty stoves and local industries. It will also create local jobs in construction and operation of methane-abating equipment.
Methane comes from a variety of sources: landfills, sewage streams, coal mines, oil and gas drilling operations, agricultural wastes, and cattle farms. For most of these sources, relatively cheap "end of pipe" technologies are available to collect methane and convert it to useful energy rather than venting it to the atmosphere.
These technologies include drilling into coal seams before mining to release and collect methane (this also reduces the risk of mine explosions, which kill hundreds of miners per year); depositing manure into "biogas" digesting tanks where pipes collect methane produced from decomposition; and covering and lining open landfills, shunting methane into a collection pipe.
In most cases, the collected methane can be used to run a village- or city-scale power plant. The Institute for Applied Systems Analysis and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimate that as much as 40% of the world's projected methane could be reduced at less than $60 dollars per ton of carbon equivalent. Some methane projects even have "negative" cost, as the value of the captured gas exceeds the investment.
Experience has shown that even with modest incentives, methane projects, which are typically small scale, can move fast. Timberline Energy, a U.S. company, reports an expected construction time of six to eight months for landfill gas projects once financing is secured. And the United Nations Clean Development Mechanism estimates that setting up biogas projects can take as little as five months. Hundreds of shovel-ready projects around the world are ready to go, but are stalled because of uncertainty over future carbon rules.
This is why on Dec. 11, along with a distinguished group of colleagues from the scientific and financial communities, we proposed the creation of a Global Methane Fund to address the specific measures needed to get methane projects off the ground now. This includes a guaranteed price floor for methane projects to allay uncertainty over future carbon prices.
Funded by governments and private foundations, a Global Methane Fund with only $100 million to $200 million could leverage tens of billions of dollars for other projects, which will have a quick and measurable cooling effect in the Arctic and elsewhere. Scientific studies, such as the EPA's June 2006 report, "Global Mitigation of Non-CO2 Greenhouse Gases," conservatively indicate that we could eliminate 1.3 gigatons of annual CO2 equivalent emissions—that's half the U.S. power industry's emissions—just by targeting landfills, coal mines, and oil and gas leaks.
Such a fund would benefit melting glaciers in the Arctic, and in the Andean and Himalayan mountains. And it would demonstrate to the world that we can do something to quickly slow climate change.
We need to get moving to cool the planet's temperature. Methane is the most effective place for us to start.
Mr. Watson is former chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Mr. Mohamed El-Ashry is a senior fellow at the United Nations Foundation, and former CEO of Global Environment Facility, an independent partnership that funds environmental projects in the developing world.

Democrats pose threat to President Obama’s cap-and-trade climate Bill

Giles Whittell in Washington

Less than ten days after claiming a breakthrough on climate change in Copenhagen President Obama is facing a mutiny from senior Democrats who are imploring him to postpone or even abandon his cap-and-trade Bill.
Democratic Senators, fearful of a drubbing in the mid-term elections next year, are lining up to argue for alternatives to the scheme that is the centrepiece of the carbon reduction proposals that Mr Obama hopes to sign into law. With the Congressional battles over Mr Obama’s healthcare reforms fresh in their memory senior Democrats are asking the Administration to postpone the next big climate change push until at least 2011.
Senators from Louisiana, Indiana, Nebraska and North Dakota, some with powerful energy companies among their constituents, are falling out of love with the idea of a large-scale cap-and-trade scheme — which seeks to allocate tradeable permits to major polluters — in favour of less ambitious proposals that put jobs and the economy first.
Each of their Senate votes is vital for any climate change Bill to have a chance of being passed, and a firm American commitment to cap and trade is essential for similar carbon reduction mechanisms to be effective on a global scale.

Asked if she has urged the White House to abandon cap and trade — at least until after the mid-terms — Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana told the Politico website yesterday: “I am communicating that in every way I know how.”
At least five other high-ranking Democrats have lobbied the Administration in similar terms. Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota said that winning passage of climate change legislation in an election year had “very poor prospects”, and Senator Ben Nelson of Nebraska said that he would “just as soon see [climate change] set aside until we work through the economy”.
Even more significant — as indicators of the majority party’s resolve to pass climate change legislation in the face of almost unanimous Republican opposition — were remarks from Dick Durbin, the Senate Majority Whip, and John Kerry, the Massachusetts Senator who is in the process of drafting a climate change Bill favoured by the White House.
“At this point, I’d like to see a complete Bill but we have to be realistic,” Senator Durbin said. Senator Kerry, speaking at the Copenhagen climate conference this month, said: “I can’t tell you the method or the means by which we might price carbon. We haven’t resolved that issue yet.”
Proponents of cap and trade argue that allowing polluters to trade carbon permits gives them a powerful incentive to emit less than the maximum imposed by the cap — and ensures that these emission reductions are achieved by the most cost-effective means available, whether by investing in new, clean technology at home, or in offsetting schemes in developing economies where greater reductions can be achieved per dollar spent.
Critics of the system point to teething problems in the European pilot scheme, begun under the auspices of the Kyoto Protocol, when the price of carbon collapsed because of excessive free allocations of carbon permits to big, politically connected polluters such as the power generation industry.
Mr Obama has been a personal convert to cap and trade since witnessing the success of a scheme limited to the control of sulphur dioxide emissions in the 1990s. The creation of a market in tradeable sulphur dioxide permits cut emissions of the gas so swiftly that the acid rain it produces has disappeared from the Midwest as a serious environmental issue.
Congress will return from its winter break with healthcare reform unfinished, Democrats wary of any new proposals that can be presented as a further burden on the economy and Republicans eager to depict cap and trade as just such a burden.
The official position of the White House remains that “a cap-and-trade mechanism is the best way to achieve the most cost-effective reductions” — but it is not yet embedded firmly in the Senate Bill being drafted by Senators Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman.
That Bill is one of nine competing proposals before the Senate and while most Democrats can be relied on to support it, a half-dozen defectors would leave the party short of the 60-vote majority that they need to overcome a Republican filibuster.
Senator Graham, a Republican, has said that he believes others from his party can be won over. If so, they have gone to ground.
Senator John McCain, once a vocal supporter of cap and trade, now wants huge federal backing for the nuclear industry in return for his vote. Senator Mike Johanns of Nebraska has called the scheme “a death sentence” for farming.
Mr Obama put his political prestige on the line in Copenhagen to reach agreement on a pact to curb carbon emissions while trying to shore up his domestic flank amid rising scepticism about a new climate Bill in the US.
He declined to offer new sweeteners to get a deal, rebuked China’s reluctance to allow outside scrutiny of action on greenhouse-gas emissions and warned developing states that they could forget aid that had no strings attached.
Lobbyists count the cost of power
Senator Mary Landrieu (Dem — Louisiana)
Louisiana is a large oil and gas state and Ms Landrieu has fought hard for energy interests during her 12 years in the Senate. She was listed as one of a “Dirty Dozen” legislators by the League of Conservation Voters and was described in a local newspaper as “the most fervent pro-drilling Democrat in the Senate”.
About 14 per cent of crude oil that is imported by the US comes through the Louisiana Offshore Oil Port, a deepwater facility off the state’s coast
Senator Kent Conrad (Dem — N Dakota)
North Dakota is a leading coal state, with coal-fired power stations providing about 93 per cent of its energy production. Large oil reserves were discovered in the state in the 1950s. Much of the state’s economy is also based on agricultural production — a sector that would be hit particularly hard by an increase in the price of fossil fuels. Mr Conrad has poor environmental credentials. He voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act and called for an increase in oil and gas drilling
Senator Ben Nelson (Dem — Nebraska)
Nebraska has more than 47,000 farms, and is an important agriculture state. Mr Nelson sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee and has in the past vigorously defended the interests of farmers, arguing that climate change legislation would drive up the cost of electricity and damage the agriculture sector.
He said: “Every farm-state senator is aware of what the cap-and-trade proposals could do to their agriculture base.”
Sources: Grist; US Department of Agriculture

Sir Richard Branson: the airline owner on his new war

"Carbon is the enemy," says Sir Richard Branson. "Let's attack it in any possible way we can, or many people will die just like in any war."

By Rowena MasonPublished: 3:10PM GMT 28 Dec 2009

With a certain sense of irony, the billionaire part-owner of five airlines has just jetted into Copenhagen, battleground of the international climate change talks, to warn fellow business leaders, politicians and campaigners about this apocalyptic scenario.
Sir Richard, who is due to give a speech at an event on saving the rainforests, has no sooner sat down than launched into a diatribe against carbon dioxide, of which his Virgin Atlantic airline emits 4.8m tonnes per year.

Every weapon in the arsenal must be deployed to reduce carbon dioxide, he argues, from biofuels to greener materials for aeroplane bodies, both through financial penalties for polluters and more funding for technology.
Flying around the world for seven days and taking tourists into space have been among Sir Richard's well-documented – and carbon-intensive – thrill-seeking missions.
He claims that his current goal for the decade is not only to ensure that all his planes run on eco-friendly biofuel mixes by 2015, but to persuade others in the airline industry that they should do the same by 2020.
Relaxing in jeans and a shirt at a hotel conference centre in the greenest city in the world, Branson is showing no signs of nerves about being an airline owner about to share a stage with an array of environmentalists, from the governor of the Amazon to the president of the World Wildlife Fund.
But as the self-confessed owner of a "dirty business", doesn't he feel some responsibility for his key role in the transport industry that produces 20pc of the world's emissions each year?
A quick look at the website of Virgin Atlantic shows that this single airline emits more carbon dioxide than many entire countries – including Uganda, Paraguay and Albania.
Even within the industry it is not the greenest airline of them all. Per passenger-kilometre, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic emit substantially higher amounts of carbon dioxide than easyJet – and even Ryanair, the airline run by the famous environmental sceptic Michael O'Leary.
Budget airlines, with their newer fleets and passengers crammed into every seat, boast significantly lower emissions than the traditional flyers.
"We do owe it to the world to get our house in order, which is why I want airlines to get together and set an example on lowering emissions. Realising that flying was part of the problem is why we donate all the profits from Virgin Atlantic to environmental projects," Sir Richard says, ducking the low-flying question about whether consumers should simply be hopping on fewer planes.
Green activists have criticised this approach, which, like offsetting, assumes that business can simply pay to pollute – the corporate equivalent of trashing a hotel room and leaving a pile of cash at reception. Some also point out that these donations are only the dividends paid to Sir Richard's Virgin Group, with the bulk of profits injected back into the business. The sum total of his green philanthropy has so far failed to reach anywhere near the $3bn (£1.87bn) originally promised in 2006.
But as a businessman, it is hardly surprising that Sir Richard is desperate to find a means of spending his way out of the problem rather than stymie growth for the airline industry. His strong support for Heathrow's third runway makes it clear that he thinks that reducing consumption is not the answer.
"We have to make a low-carbon world capable of growth otherwise we won't have hospitals and schools, and society will start falling apart," Sir Richard claims, swinging from one Doomsday narrative to the next. "We're not going to get China and India to stop growing, so the challenge will be all about changing our ways."
Recognising that financial penalties on heavy carbon emissions could make huge dents in the future profits of the transport sector, he says, it also makes financial sense to pump some profits into researching new fuels.
Scientists regularly cast doubt on the idea that biofuels will be ready for air travel within the next decade, despite the ideal solution that one day petroleum will be replaced by algae or sugar. Virgin Atlantic pioneered the first biofuel flight last year, but the brief journey from London to Amsterdam had only 20pc coconut oil in one of four jet engines – and the technology is still a long way off being commercially viable.
With $75m spent on researching biochar, a charcoal that may be able to pump CO2 out of air, and more funding for geo-engineering to change the make-up of the earth's atmosphere, Sir Richard is at pains to show he is at least trying.
Top on his list of priorities is a global emissions trading system for aviation and shipping, which he would like to see go towards environmental causes.
"What we really want is a global agreement on aviation, where a percentage goes to the rainforests," he says, pointing out that under the European emissions trading scheme for airlines due to start in 2012, governments will be able to spend the proceeds on whatever they wish.
Another crusade is shipping and he has used his time in the Danish capital to meet the mayors and port authorities of Calgary and Los Angeles to try to show them how to "impose specific standards on ships coming into those ports".
"Business groups have done a good job in some areas like energy but some industries like shipping have done very little and that's where I can help," Sir Richard says. "I would love every industry in the world to be clear about what it has to do."
The plane manufacturers, such as Airbus and Boeing, are also crucial to cleaning up the industry's image, Sir Richard says, urging them to move from carbon-based plastics and titanium to new "composite" green materials.
However, at the mention of potential green taxes, rather than market-mechanisms, Sir Richard shifts from environmental fervour into a rage against the business-bashing policies of New Labour. "The airline industry has suffered a 100pc increase in taxes by this Labour Government, which are not going to environmental causes, and the danger is that this would tax the industry out of existence," he says. "But if they do end up taxing industry they need to make it absolutely clear that running planes on clean fuels would see taxes removed."
There is an argument that aviation's acceptance of emissions trading and offer to peak its emissions by 2020 is purely a move to pre-empt stricter potential curbs in the future. Sir Richard disagrees, but thinks the aviation industry could push itself harder by offering to cut emissions even further given the failure of the Copenhagen talks.
"If governments don't get their act together or make stupid, populistic decisions, businesses will have to take action on their own and we might as well do that now," he says.

John Prescott defends China's role at Copenhagen climate summit

• Former deputy PM attacks US envoy's stance at talks• Negotiator at Kyoto rejects Obama's view of 1997 deal

Patrick Wintour and Jonathan Watts
The Guardian, Monday 28 December 2009
John Prescott has defended China's role in the climate change summit, saying the blame for its flawed outcome must lie with the United States and Barack Obama.
The former deputy prime minister helped negotiate the Kyoto protocol in 1997, and was in Copenhagen acting as an informal bridge between the Chinese delegation and others.
As a frequent visitor to China, who knows many of its officials personally, Prescott fears privately that the Chinese will walk away from the talks if they continue to be singled out for blame.
In a letter to the Guardian, Prescott criticises the US climate change special envoy, Todd Stern, who "said at Copenhagen emissions weren't about 'morality or politics', they were 'just maths', with China projected to emit 60% more CO2 than the US by 2030".
In his letter Prescott claims that Stern's arguments "ignored the more transparent measure of pollution per capita, which shows the US emits 20 tonnes per person every year, compared to China's six tonnes, whilst America's GDP per person is almost eight times greater than the Chinese". He also attacks President Barack Obama for suggesting there had been a period of "two decades of talking and no action. That might have been true in America, which refused to sign up to Kyoto, but not in the case of China or Europe, who followed a lot of that protocol's policies. Indeed Obama's offer of a 17% cut is wholly dependent on Congressional approval and will still be less than Kyoto targets." Prescott is climate change convenor for the Council of Europe, with the role of exploring how to keep the talks on the road.
China itself defended its "crucial role" in saving the Copenhagen conference from failure, according to the state media's first blow-by-blow rebuttal of European claims that China wrecked a climate deal.
In a florid account of prime minister Wen Jiabao's 60 hours in Copenhagen, the Xinhua news agency said the premier staved off the "unrealistic and unfair demands" of Britain, Germany and Japan.
There is no direct criticism of the US, but Obama is described as "awkward" in the presence of the Chinese premier.
According to the lengthy defence of China's actions, European nations repeatedly tried to impose secret drafts, unscheduled meetings and a hidden agenda on China and other developing nations.
The article, likely to have been approved at the highest level of government, notes that Wen walked out of a state dinner after hearing that an unscheduled meeting of leaders was being arranged soon afterwards to discuss a new draft text.
"It was really absurd that the country who called for the meeting never informed China," the report says. "Premier Wen concluded that this was no small matter.
"Since the start of the conference, there had been cases where individual or small group of countries put forward new texts in disregard of the principle of openness and transparency, arousing strong complaints from other participants."
Such accusations infuriate senior European negotiators, who claim China was fully informed ahead of Copenhagen of the plan for a new document, though it never agreed to the content.
Xinhua avoids mention of how and why China killed attempts to impose 2050 targets for reducing emissions. Beijing has consistently rejected such long-term goals, which it sees as a threat to itseconomic growth.It also fails to address claims that China torpedoed the inclusion of a 1.5C maximum global temperature rise, requested by small island states and African nations. Instead, it says, Wen showed sincerity by accepting a rise of no more than 2C by 2050.

Blame Denmark, not China, for Copenhagen failure

The decision to override the multilateral process and hold a secret meeting of select nations ruined any chance of success

Martin Khor
guardian.co.uk, Monday 28 December 2009 12.11 GMT
It's been several days since the chaotic end to the Copenhagen climate conference but the aftershocks from its failure are still reverberating. As John Prescott points out in his letter to the Guardian, the pointing of fingers in the blame game does not help the regaining of trust needed for the positive resumption of talks early next year and to complete them by December 2010, the new deadline agreed to in Copenhagen.
First, the misinformation put out in the past few days has to be corrected. The UK climate secretary, Ed Miliband, backed by individuals such as Mark Lynas (both writing in the Guardian) have turned on China as the villain that "hijacked" the conference. The main "evidence" they gave was that China vetoed an "agreement" on a 50% reduction in global emissions by 2050 and an 80% reduction by developed countries, in the small meeting of 26 leaders on Copenhagen's final day.
There was indeed a "hijack" in Copenhagen, but it was not by China. The hijack was organised by the host government, Denmark, whose prime minister convened a meeting of 26 leaders in the last two days of the conference, in an attempt to override the painstaking negotiations taking place among 193 countries throughout the two weeks and in fact in the past two to four years.
That exclusive meeting was not mandated by the UN climate convention. Indeed, the developing countries had warned the Danish prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, not to come up with his own "Danish text" to be negotiated by a small group that he himself would select, as this would violate the multilateral treaty-based process, and would replace the documents carefully negotiated by all countries with one unilaterally issued by the host country.
Despite this, the Danish government produced just such a document, and it convened exactly the kind of exclusive group that would undermine the UN climate convention's multilateral and democratic process. Under that process, the 193 countries had been collectively working on coming to a conclusion on the many aspects of the climate deal.
Weeks before, it had become clear that Copenhagen could not adopt a full agreement because many basic differences remained. Copenhagen should have been designed as a stepping stone to a future successful outcome accepted by all. Unfortunately, the host country Denmark selected a small number of the 110 top leaders who came, to meet in secret, without the mandate or even knowledge of the convention's membership.
The selected leaders were given a draft Danish document that mainly represented the developed countries' positions, thereby marginalising the developing countries' views tabled at the two-year negotiations.
Meanwhile, most of the thousands of delegates were working for two weeks on producing two reports representing the latest state of play, indicating areas of agreement and those where final decisions still had to be taken.
These reports were finally adopted by the conference. They should have been announced as the real outcome of Copenhagen, together with a decision to resume and complete work next year. It would not have been a resounding success, but it would have been an honest ending that would not have been termed a failure.
Instead, the Copenhagen accord was criticised by the final plenary of members and not adopted. The unwise attempt by the Danish presidency to impose a non-legitimate meeting to override the legitimate multilateral process was the reason why Copenhagen will be considered a disaster.
The accord itself is weak mainly because it does not contain any commitments by the developed countries to cut their emissions in the medium term. Perhaps the reason for this most glaring omission is that the national pledges so far announced amount to only a 11-19% overall reduction by the developed countries by 2020 (compared to 1990), a far cry from the over 40% target demanded by the developing countries and recent science.
To deflect from this great failure on their part, the developed countries tried to inject long-term emission-reduction goals of 50% for the world and 80% for themselves, by 2050 compared to 1990. When this failed to get through the 26-country meeting, some countries, especially the UK, began to blame China for the failure of Copenhagen.
In fact, these targets, especially taken together, have been highly contentious during the two years of discussions, and for good reasons. They would result in a highly inequitable outcome where developed countries get off from their responsibilities and push the burden of adjustment onto the developing countries.
Together, they imply that developing countries would have to cut their emissions overall by about 20% in absolute terms and at least 60% in per capita terms. By 2050, developed countries with high per capita emissions – such as the US – would be allowed to have two to five times higher per capita emission levels than developing countries. The latter would have to severely curb not only their emissions but also their economic growth, especially since there is, up to now, no credible plans let alone commitments for financial and technology transfers to help them shift to a low-emissions development path.
The developed countries have already completed their industrialisation on the basis of cheap carbon-based energy and can afford to take on an 80% goal for 2050, especially since they now have the technological and organisational capacity and infrastructure. For a minimally equitable deal, they should commit to cuts of at least 200-400%, or move into negative emission territory, with net re-absorption of greenhouse gases, to enable developing countries the atmospheric space to develop.
The acceptance of the two targets would also have locked in a most unfair sharing of the remaining global carbon budget as it would have allowed the developed countries to get off free from their historical responsibility and their carbon debt. They would have been allocated the rights to a large amount of "carbon space", historically and in the future, without being given the obligation and responsibility to undertake adequate emission cuts nor to make adequate financial and technology transfers to developing countries.
Fortunately these targets are absent from the accord. The imperative for the negotiations next year is to agree on what science says is necessary for the world to do (in terms of limits to temperature rise or in global emissions cut) but also on what is a just and equitable formula for sharing the costs and burdens of adjustment, and to decide on both simultaneously. By asking for agreement on only a global goal and a very low commitment figure for their own obligatory cut, the developed countries were attempting to fix a global carbon budget distribution that enables them to get away with the hijacking of atmospheric space, a resource worth many trillions of dollars.
Learning from Copenhagen's mistakes, the countries should return to the multilateral track and resume negotiations in the climate convention's two working groups as early as possible.
They can start with the two reports passed at Copenhagen as reference points. There should not be more attempts to hijack this multilateral process, which represents our best hope to achieve final results.
The bottom-up democratic process is slower but also steadier, compared to the top-down attempt to impose a solution by a few powers that will always lack legitimacy in decision-making and success or sustainability in implementation.

China threatens to slam brakes on price of lead

Leo Lewis, Asia Business Correspondent

After a surge of more than 125 per cent, the price of lead ends the year in limbo — its future at the mercy of Chinese bureaucracy, the stroke of a pen and the legal status of 100 million electric bicycles.
The cycles in question, known as “e-bikes”, are battery-enhanced machines that are the darlings of the modern, urban Chinese. More than 20 million were sold this year, putting a vast army of commuters, unable to afford cars or motorcycles — and without licences — on the roads at a sedate maximum speed of 12 km/h (7½ mph).
If the rules stay as they are, analysts say, e-bike sales may rise to 25 million next year. If they change, as seems possible, the ramifications will stretch far beyond the streets of Shanghai, Beijing, Wuhan and Guangzhou.
Crucially, more than 90 per cent of e-bikes use a lead-acid battery — and, with each one needing about 12kg (26lb 7oz) of lead, China’s cyclists represent more than 6 per cent of global demand for the metal. If the Chinese are allowed to continue to own e-bikes without a licence, according to analysts at CLSA, the Asia-based brokerage, the price of lead may continue to rise. If rules are tightened severely, commodity traders in Hong Kong think that much of the speculative “froth” that has been driving up lead may vanish.

The Chinese have embraced the machines more vigorously than any other nation. Even without government “green” subsidies of the sort used to push e-bikes in Europe, 80 per cent of the world’s electric bicycles were sold to Chinese commuters. Ecological concerns have little to do with their decision. E-bikes outsell cars in China by a ratio of two-to-one for reasons of economy. A standard e-bike, costing 1,700 yuan (£155) and used as an alternative to a daily commute by bus, pays for itself in 100 days. Competition between China’s 1,000 licensed e-bike makers is likely to keep prices down.
The e-bikes are also easier to negotiate through China’s huge traffic jams. This month, the four millionth private car hit the roads of Beijing. In every big Chinese city, the roads are clogged to a standstill as the highway infrastructure bends under the strain.
Recent talks in Beijing over the status of the larger e-bikes have loomed over the industry just as its golden era seemed to be approaching. Citing accidents and the use of silent e-bikes as an ideal stealth vehicle for bag-snatchers, the Government said that it might re-classify some as motorcycles. That, manufacturers argued, would make them too expensive for many consumers and make millions of existing users criminals because they do not hold driving licences.
Ten days ago Beijing’s State Standardisation Authority seemed to back down, postponing the new classification, which would have gone into force this Friday, but industry insiders think that the delay could prove to be short-lived. Local reports suggest that many e-bike makers, wary of the industry’s future, are planning to shed workers.

Economics and the environment: Down to earth index

The Guardian, Monday 28 December 2009
How much is the planet worth? Not a jot, according to most economists' calculations. Last week, politicians and City analysts got Tiggerishly excited over an official report showing that Britain's economy shrank 0.2% in the three months to the end of September rather than the 0.4% initially reported. Yet that all-important measure of GDP is a 20th-century invention which simply tots up all the goods and services produced in an economy, as valued at market prices. Among all the many things it leaves out is the cost to the environment of this activity. Indeed, it often puts a perverse value on damage to the planet. While another Exxon Valdez would be a huge environmental disaster, the cleanup costs would give a big boost to GDP – fantastic evidence for that old jibe about economics being the dismal science.
Or perhaps it is modern practitioners who are particularly dismal, or myopic. Writing to comrades in Germany in 1875, Karl Marx criticised their assertion that "Labour is the source of wealth and all culture". No, he replied, "Nature is just as much the source of use values (and it is surely of such that material wealth consists!)". Yet it is only in the last 15 years or so that economists have done much more than treat environmental issues – whether smog or global warming – as mere footnotes (or "externalities") to their various measures of human progress. Climate change has forced the issue up the academic agenda, so that an LSE economist, Nicholas Stern, is now a world authority on how to reduce carbon emissions. Other economists have been working on ways to measure natural capital, or environmental damage and depletion (and those rare opposite examples).
Foremost among these is Partha Dasgupta, who has just published a lucid survey of the field for the Royal Society. The most striking bit comes when the economist takes a handful of developing countries and measures their performance along a few yardsticks, such as GDP. To these old favourites he adds the index of wealth, which tries to measure "natural capital assets": forests, oil and minerals, and atmospheric quality. Nearly all of Professor Dasgupta's countries have enjoyed income growth over the past 30 years, but in natural wealth they have all gone backwards. Pakistan's GDP per head rose 2.2% a year between 1970 and 2000 – but its per capita natural wealth shrank 1.4%.
This is interesting and vital work. Interesting because the methods of environmental measurement, and the parts of the environment measured, are still crude (the wealth index does not include water or soil); vital for, well, obvious reasons. In nearly all their earlier calculations and prescriptions, economists have taken the earth for granted. Time to get real.